Crew errors caused plane tragedy

A PLANE crash which killed nine Suffolk-based American servicemen was caused by a series of errors from crew members, accident investigators have revealed.

A PLANE crash which killed nine Suffolk-based American servicemen was caused by a series of errors from crew members, accident investigators have revealed.

The RAF Mildenhall-based 130H Combat Talon II crashed into an Albanian mountainside at a speed of 120mph and exploded into a ball of flames just 20 minutes after taking off on a routine training mission in March this year.

Investigators said the crew had a “false sense of security” as they flew the $80 million stealth plane too low, before attempts to manoeuvre away from snow-topped mountains ended when the aircraft stalled seconds before the crash.

A report into the disaster by the United States Air Force said a “loss of situational awareness” by flight deck crew, inadequate planning and lack of experience in night-time flying all contributed to the crash - but ruled out any sign of hostile action.

Capt Todd Bracy, 34; Capt James Cronin, 32; Capt Gil Williamson, 31; Capt Surender Kothakota, 30; and 1st Lieutenant 22-year-old Ray Owens all died in the accident in a remote mountainous region of Albania, about 35 miles east of the capital Tirana.

Their colleagues - Chief Master Sgt Lawrence Gray, 40; Technical Sgt James Henry, 30; Technical Sgt Glenn Lastes, 39; and Staff Sgt Patrick Pentico, 22, also lost their lives in the tragedy on March 31, which plunged Suffolk's American community into mourning.

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The month-long investigation revealed that crew became aware of the mountains just over a minute before impact and were conscious and aware when the plane crashed.

The report said: “The flight deck crew began to realise they were in serious trouble as the tone of their voices began to change and they were directing the pilot to increase his rate of turn to get away from the terrain ahead.”

Military rescue attempts were initially hampered by treacherous conditions although local Albanian villagers said that the heat from the crash site prevented them from getting closer than 400 feet, the report revealed.

USAF Brigadier General Michael Wilson, president of the Accident Investigations Board, said: “The board determined that the crew's loss of situational awareness placed the aircraft in too low a climb with respect to the surrounding mountainous terrain.

“Responding to the situation, the crew did not use all available power and stalled the aircraft during a turning climb.

“This resulted in a loss of aircraft control and almost immediate crash.”

The plane, which can fly under radar and was part of the base's 7th Special Operations Squadron, was on a joint training mission with Albanian forces at the time of the tragedy.

Speaking at a memorial service for the airmen, attended by 3,000 people in April, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Dean, squadron commander, said: “These men made a difference.

“They were warriors, husbands, fathers, sons, leaders and defenders of our freedom and the impact they made on life will be everlasting.

“As I was thinking of words to say about these men, these come to mind: courage, excellence, selflessness, pride, sacrifice. Your footprints are here and we will not forget you.”

A spokesman for RAF Mildenhall last night declined to comment on the investigation into the crash, which was regarded as the biggest tragedy to hit the US base since the Americans moved there in the 1950s.

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